For something a bit different this week, I have decided to review and recommend some TV shows with a feminist leaning. With the current discussions going around about Game of Thrones and its regular assertions that women are almost exclusively for the use, ownership and entertainment of men, I have been looking for shows that, you know, portray women as people.
The pickings are slim. Most blockbuster TV shows are about men, by men and for men. But there seems to be emerging a trickle of solid series featuring women. Here are a few that I have watched, and what I think of them.
Orange Is The New Black
Set in a women’s prison, OITNB features a diverse cast of women, covering a wide range of ages, colours, shapes and sexual orientations. The central character is a privileged white girl who goes in facing a short stint for drug-related crimes and soon realises that it won’t be a simple matter of keeping her head down and doing her time quietly.
For its fairly gritty subject matter, OITNB manages to remain upbeat and enjoyable, as we delve into the past to discover what makes the various inmates tick and what led them to their life behind bars.
Based on the beloved series of books by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander follows the adventures of Claire Randall, a world-wise WWII army nurse, who is suddenly transported back in time 200 years.
Finding herself in the Scottish Highlands circa 1940s, Claire is picked up by a band of clansmen, and quickly ends up in a politically-motivated arranged marriage with a very buff young Highlander named James Fraser.
Written by a woman, and featuring a female lead with a unique personality, Outlander doesn’t skimp on all the ‘man stuff’ required to depict life in a politically unstable, historically-accurate environment. There is blood, nudity, sex, violence, depravity, brutality and bad language. And yet none of it is gratuitous or over-the-top. None of it is purely for titillation or shock value.
Season one is about to end, with season two in the works and plans for several more. I hope that the Outlander star continues to rise and we get to enjoy watching the whole story of Jamie and Claire evolve over the next decade.
Gillian Anderson plays Stella Gibson, a no-nonsense MET Detective Superintendent called to Belfast to lead the search for a serial killer who preys on women.
This is horror TV for women, with a cold and calculating killer who manages to prey on successful young women even when they take measures to protect themselves. That he does all this without his wife and children even noticing anything odd makes him all the more terrifying. Stella sets out to match wits with the killer (played by Jamie Dornan of 50 Shades of Grey fame, which made it really easy for me to dislike him) and use his pathology against him to bring him to justice.
This series is a slow burner, you’ll find yourself thinking nothing much is happening and then suddenly the episode is over and you just have to find out what happens next. Gillian Anderson’s Stella is the perfect balance of tough and vulnerable, composed and emotional, authoritative and imperfect, whether doing laps in the pool or rocking killer heels and a power skirt in the office. The monochrome bleakness of Belfast and contrasts sharply with the raw humanity of the characters.
Hold on a second, I know what you are going to say. Greys is pure fluff and certainly doesn’t qualify as feminist. But bear with me. With hand on heart, I have to say that Greys Anatomy is my favourite TV show of all time. And I recently finished re-watching all of the first 10 seasons. Yes, it took months. And from my scattered memories of the last ten years, I expected to find it tedious and overly dramatic. But I thoroughly enjoyed it, even with my recently acquired feminist perspective.
This show is full of diverse female characters. Yes, they spend a lot of time talking about boys and dealing with boy problems, but they live their lives, they survive tragedies, they save people, they learn, they grow, they mess up, they fall apart and they pick their shit up and get on with it. Sometimes you get the feeling that the women are the meat-and-potatoes of the series and the men are the window dressing. Story arcs vary from one episode to spanning the entire ten years, and creator Shonda Rhimes keeps finding new ways to touch your heart and sometimes break it. This is a show by a woman, about women, and for women, and I can happily watch it for hours on end.
It would be easy to give too much away about this series, which features Tatiana Maslany in a number of very different roles. The main character is Sarah, a con-artist looking for the big score that will allow her to escape her troubled past and start a new life with her young daughter Kira and her flamboyant foster-brother Felix. But when Sarah picks up the handbag of a young woman who has just committed suicide, she starts a journey down a path of intrigue where the answers lead to ever more questions.
Apart from the raft of female characters, this series takes a refreshingly honest approach to sexuality, with relationships and sexual encounters handed out liberally and without judgement to the characters without discriminating on the basis of age, appearance or orientation. The story twists and turns, heads down side streets, goes off on tangents, and still manages to stay coherent.
Top of the Lake
I am only one episode into this miniseries, created by Jane Campion of The Piano fame. I didn’t expect to be hooked by the first episode, but it took some serious will power to turn it off and go to bed without watching ‘just one more’. Once I am finished writing this I will be hopping straight back in front of the telly to continue where I left off.
This series has been accused of having an ‘aggressive feminist agenda’, probably because it is brave enough to actually discuss male violence and not take the party line of portraying men as heroes, or at least all-round good blokes. It certainly pulls no punches, with the storyline focusing on Tui, a slight 12-year-old girl who tries to kill herself in a freezing lake and in the aftermath is discovered to be pregnant. Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss, takes an interest in the case and ends up uncovering a hotbed of small-town secrets.
Child abuse, domestic violence, rape culture and male superiority are all put under the microscope. Set in New Zealand, the scenery is magnificent.
So those are some series to consider if you’re after a change of pace from all the man-centric, ultra-violent, mainstream TV that everyone seems to be into these days. You may notice that I didn’t include Lena Dunham’s Girls in my list. I watched the first two seasons because of the reported realism and out-there female characters, and found something I could relate to in the interactions between flawed characters. But a few episodes into season three it got to the point where I just wanted to slap them all in the face for being so completely self-absorbed, and there seemed to be no more real human connections to distract me from how much I disliked them all. So no, I don’t really recommend Girls.
But the rest of those should keep you going for a while.